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Question Your World: How Many Habitable Planets are Out there?

Ever since humans first started to open their eyes some 200,000 years ago, we've looked up at the night sky and wondered what all was out there? As science and technology progressed we were able to learn more and more about the natural world beyond the Earth. So, the big question currently is how many habitable planets are out there? Find out in this week's Question Your World Radio Report by the Science Museum of Virginia.

Right now is a great time for science. As we progress in research and technology we get all kinds of data that help us further understand more and more about this crazy little thing called…the universe. New information helps us accept or reject theories and formulas created in the past. For example, the Drake Equation, the mathematical likelihood of life existing somewhere out there, was published in 1961. The equation itself basically goes over the variables needed for life to exist based on what we understand intelligent life would need to happen somewhere. 

Everything from star rate formation to the number of planets to the number of places that could hold a civilization for a time period and the chances of it becoming intelligent and putting signals out into the universe are all considered in the Drake Equation, pretty impressive. However, in 1961, the technology was not there to give definite and solid answers. In fact, we still have nowhere near the needed information to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to this cosmic formula. That's the beauty of science though. Just because we don't have it now does not discourage, but instead encourages more active research and the development of more powerful tools. 

With that said, NASA  has just announced something huge. After over 50 years we now have one piece of the puzzle. Kepler telescope researchers just announced that 1 out of every 5 sun-like stars in our solar system have at least one planet in the habitable zone. This is a huge discovery with massive implications. At one point the Earth was the center of the universe, but today the Earth is just one of the 8.8 billion other planets in our galaxy that lives in the not-too-hot-and-not-too-cold area of their medium sized star. Keep in mind this is the data from the stars that resemble our sun, we're not even talking about the smaller or larger options. For those needing even more intense thoughts in your head, this data is only for the sun-like-stars in our galaxy, not including what could perhaps be possible in the billions of other galaxies and trillions of other stars out there. Big stuff.

So, no need to give up on real estate woes here and certainly no need to start panicking about the pending alien attack. The closest of these options is still several light years away. Regardless, this is a great piece of data to put into the Drake Equation and hopefully will inspire future generations to get to work on the research and development needed to plug in the other numbers. The cosmos has provided us with many mysteries that throughout the years have inspired traditions, civilizations, technology, research, and entertainment. Who knows what is actually out there, but this marks a large milestone in our understanding of what could be out there, a lot.

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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